THE GAME - IN AND OUT - SHE'S SO LOVELY
THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG
Nicholas Van Orten is a wealthy, shrewd businessman who is accustomed to controlling every minute detail of his life, from investments to personal relationships. On his 48th birthday, a day he doesn't particularly want to celebrate, he is visited by his wayward brother, Conrad, who has a very special gift for his elder sibling - a game that will have devastating consequences on Nicholas' life.
"The Game" stars Michael Douglas as Nicholas and Sean Penn as brother Conrad, and is directed by David Fincher, who brought us the grizzly hit crime thriller, "Seven."
"The Game" is a rare find this year - a Hollywood film with an exciting and intelligent script, excellent acting and direction, solid technical credits, no overwhelming special F/X and only one ending!
Director Fincher ("Alien 3") proved himself to be a terrific visual stylist with the haunting film "Seven." With "The Game," he has clinched himself a position on the director A-lit. Using a minimalist starring cast - Douglas and Penn are the only "names," with the rest of the cast made up of character actors and unknowns (a plus for the film) - the story focuses entirely on Nicholas Van Orton, from our introduction to the uptight control freak with a haunted past to a man finally freed of his self-imposed emotional restraints. Fincher shows a deft hand in eliciting solid performances from Douglas et al, while juggling the complexity of a roller coaster ride of a script.
Michael Douglas, as he matures, is becoming a more broadly appealing actor. As the anal retentive Nicholas, there is little to identify oneself with the man at the film's start. As the story, and the game, progresses, Nicholas becomes deeply mired in confusion, never knowing what's real and what isn't - he loses control of his control. At this point, we begin to root for the guy. He becomes one of us (even though he *is* filthy, stinking rich), in the end, when he loses everything and fights to get it back. The game becomes a surreal challenge to Nicholas and all that he has learned, making us cheer for him during his metamorphosis.
Sean Penn's Conrad, though not a major presence in the film or the story, is important in the setup of the game and to it's continuation. He is convincing in the small part, especially when he tells his brother that the game has gone dreadfully wrong - Penn is certainly better here than the horrible performance he gives in "She's So Lovely."
Supporting cast has no star-level actors, with Fincher and company making terrific use of the unfamiliar, by name, cast. Deborah Kara Unger ("Crash") is impressive as the resourceful waitress who helps (or hinders?) Nicholas. She gives such a nuanced performance that you never know if she's a good guy or a bad guy. James Rebhorn, Peter Donat and Armin Mueller-Stahl all do a fine job in playing their roles in "The Game."
The screenplay, by John Brancato and Michael Ferris ("The Net"), has a slow setup, taking time to develop the story before getting to the action. During the setup, the parameters of the game are introduced in a clever sequence where columnist Daniel Shorr, during a Cable Financial News broadcast, suddenly starts talking directly to Nicholas. When the action kicks in, at the hour mark, the film takes off like an out of control rocket, riding high before spiralling toward inevitable disaster. But, is it all inevitable, or is it a game? The writers keep you guessing for the entire movie, always wondering who is part of the game and who isn't. A solid original screenplay - one of the best out of Hollywood this year.
The photography, especially the many night shots, have a brooding quality, using the seamy alleys and posh penthouses to equally good effect. Come to think about it, the seamy alleys and posh penthouses are representative of the excellent set decoration and production design of the film.
Did Hollywood really make "The Game?" I give it an A-.
Finally the fall movie season has arrived and if "The Game" is any indication, we may be in for some interesting viewing. Director David Fincher ("Alien 3," "Seven") has fashioned an intelligent, twisty (and twisted), dark (and funny) thriller that's a modern day equivalent to "The Stunt Man."
"The Game's" credits roll over 1950's home movies of a young boy's birthday party on the grounds of a vast estate. Although the usual party festivies are being carried out, the goings on have a vaguely sinister quality, complete with a trio of strange clowns and the presence of an enigmatic, suited father. Flash forward to the present and we realize we were witnessing the beginning of a reminiscence by Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas), which plays out to reveal that as a boy, he witnessed his father leap from the roof of their mansion to his death on the circular drive.
Nicholas is now a hugely wealthy investment banker who maintains the family estate, but no personal relationships. On his 48th birthday, (the age his father was when he died) we see that he has has little patience for most people, has been divorced by his now remarried wife, and is estranged from his brother Conrad (Sean Penn). When his secretary informs him that a Mr. Seymour Butts has invited him to lunch, but she suspects a prank (see more butts), Nicholas uncharastically tells her to arrange the reservation (in his name). Mr. Butts is Conrad bearing a strange gift - a gift certificate with Consumer Recreation Services (CSR) to play a game, which Conrad assures Nicholas he played in London with life changing consequences. Later, when Nicholas is wrapping up a business meeting, he notices CSR is located in the same building and decides to check things out. He's roped into a day long session of physicals and probing psychological questionnaires (Do you feel guilty when you masturbate?).
He's further intrigued when he overhears two men talking about CSR at his exclusive private club. CSR pulls him in by appealing to his vanity - he gets a call during a business meeting on his private line ("How did you get this number?") informing him that's he's been turned down. Then the game begins.
Originally written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris, with many revisions supervised by Fincher, "The Game" will keep you guessing. Is it only a game? Does Conrad have an ulterior motive? (He does, but it may surprise you.) Is it an elaborate scam to fleece Nicholas of his $600 million fortune and maybe even kill him? What's real and what's part of the CRS agenda? The script features so many clever touches that one can forgive it's occasional reliance on allowing CRS the ability to predict Nicholas' reactions a little too precisely. When Nicholas discovers that a hotel room rented in his name contains the clothes he wore the previous day, fully set for a sex and drug scandal, he doesn't know if it's the work of a recently fired, high ranking business partner or CRS. The stakes get much higher.
Michael Douglas is excellent as Nicholas, a distant and calculating man with an acerbic wit. (When he's asked if he enjoyed his birthday, he retorts "Does Rose Kennedy have a black dress?") He's initially enthusiastic and amused by the goings on - it's a mental challenge - until he begins to lose control of the situation. Douglas is ever so cool, though, when accosted by a carjacker on the streets of San Francisco, he simply slowly reaches for a revolver he's stolen and announces "I'm very fragile right now."
Deborah Kara Unger ("Crash") is also a plus as Christine, a waitress at Nicholas' club who gets fired over his displeasure at her clumsiness, but whose path keeps crossing his. Even once we realize that she is indeed part of the game, she maintains her mystery. Charactor actor James Rebhorn is also engaging as the CRS executive who pitches Nicholas, only to return to the story in a surprising twist. The rest of the cast (Sean Penn, in a role originally slated for Jodie Foster!, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Caroll Baker, Peter Donat) is solid, if unremarkable.
Technically the film is first rate, featuring outstanding camerawork by Fincher music video colleague Harris Savides, editting by James Haywood, production design by Jeffrey Beecroft, and a truly effective score by Howard Shore.
"The Game" is one slick flick with an ending that packs a wallop.
IN AND OUT
When hometown boy Cameron (Matt Dillon) is nominated for the Best Actor award, the entire town of Greenleaf, Indiana is glued to their television sets on Oscar night, including two of his former high school teachers. Howard (Kevin Kline) and Emily (Joan Cusack) have been engaged for three years and their wedding is set for the upcoming weekend. When Cameron's name is announced as the winner, they're elated, until, inexplicably, Cameron chooses to thank his former teacher Howard, as a gay man who helped inspire the gay character for which he's just won the award.
"In and Out" is a delightful comedy that tackles the issue of society's acceptance of homosexuality with a cornfed, small town wholesomeness. Producer Scott Rudin got the idea for the script from Tom Hanks' acceptance speech for "Philadelphia." Screenwriter Paul Rudnick (who takes on the hilarious persona of Libby Gelman-Waxner for Premiere magazine's "If You Ask Me" column) had the great idea of setting the comedy in the midwest, while throwing some delicious Hollywood-set satire. Frank Oz has directed the film with a sunny sweetness.
The cast is truly heaven sent. Kevin Kline plays Howard like a modern day Mr. Chips, a well loved man with an odd liking for Streisand films. His ability to play physical comedy is well utilized here. In one scene, while listening to a self help tape "Exploring your Machismo," he breaks free and dances and shimmies around his living room. When he's surprised by an on the lips smack from Tom Selleck's TV reporter, his enthusiastic extra touches make it the on screen kiss of the year!
Joan Cusack gives her Emily an arc that takes her from a naive, weight-obsessed underconfident young woman to an enraged feminist who finally finds happiness. She also proves that a woman scorned can be very funny indeed. Tom Selleck is a delight as the gay Hollywood TV journalist who looks to Howard's story to improve his ratings. Matt Dillon shows his natural comic ability as the shallow (and Brad Pitt lookalike) actor who decides to take responsibility for his actions. Debbie Reynolds shines again (after last year's "Mother") as Howard's mother, a woman who's less worried about the fact that her son might be gay than she is about the potential loss of throwing a wedding. Bob Newhard is the school's principal, paralyzed by the course of events. Wilford Brimley is Howard's supportive farmer dad.
"In and Out" also features some cameos during its Oscar night sequence. Whoopi Goldberg is interviewed on her way into the event. Glenn Close brings down the house reading the list of Best Actor nominees - a bit of satire that's so biting, she actually winks at the camera when taking a playful jab at her former costar Michael Douglas.
The movie wraps up all its loose ends in a double denoument that just manages to keep from going overboard into overt sentimentality. Everyone gets what they really want. I did too - a Hollywood comedy that kept me laughing throughout.
With the charming "In & Out," director Frank Oz ("The Muppets," need I say more?) has put together a finely crafted comedy that utilizes the skills of a talented comedic cast, led by the always lovely Kevin Kline, and a warm, funny screenplay by Paul Rudnick (rumored to be close to the famous Premiere magazine columnist and film critic extrodinaire, Libby Gelman-Waxner).
Oz manages to take the subject of coming out in semi-rural America and turns it into a positive statement on alternative life styles, with a decidedly Frank Capra feel. Of course, with Rudnick's witty, fast-paced script and Kevin Kline's impeccable comic ability, this is a sure shot comedy hit.
Kline, who proved his comic mettle with his Oscar-winning performance in "A Fish Called Wanda," is marvelous as outed Howard Brackett, a high school teacher with a feminine flair. He's a guy who dresses nice and likes Barbara Streisand, but believes, in his heart of hearts, he's straight because it's what everyone wants. He has the physical grace to bring the out effeminate quality Howard should have, providing broad and subtle flamboyance, as he tries to act like a man. One over the top sequence has Howard listening to a "how to be a man" self help tape - Oz, Rudnick and Kline take a silly premise and create a truly funny scene. Physically, it's Kevin Kline's best scene in the film.
Ably aiding the proceedings are a supporting cast of staunch professionals who fill out the background characters nicely. Joan Cusack ("Toys," "Grosse Pointe Blank"), as Howard's insecure, formerly fat, fiancee, Emily, lends her extensive comic acting skills to her role. She plays Emily as a woman on the edge and desperate to be married, even though, deep down, she knows that Howard is not the "man" for her.
The rest of the cast, from Debbie Reynolds, Wilford Brimley and Bob Newhart to Matt Dillon and Tom Selleck, fill out the background roles as real, funny characters. Tom Selleck, in particular, shines as the tabloid-TV journalist out for the scoop, but, who also has an empathy for Howard's plight. One "romantic" scene, between Kline and Selleck, is so outrageously sudden and shocking, it, alone, is worth the price of admission.
"In & Out" is a social comedy for the 90's with excellent credentials down the line. I laughed often and out loud through the entire film. The ending may be a little trite, but it also brings an ongoing story thread full circle, tying up all the loose ends in a satisfying movie package.
We could use more movie comedies like "In & Out" and give it a B+.
SHE'S SO LOVELY
"She's So Lovely" is a romantic fable by the late John Cassavetes chronicling the outrageous love affair between Eddie and Maureen, a drunk and unstable young couple who are also about to have a baby. Their weird, intense love for each other causes Eddie to go off the edge and into an institution, while Maureen finds another life for her and her baby. In the end, nothing can keep them apart.
Starring real-life couple Sean Penn and Robin Wright-Penn, director Nick Cassavetes ("Unhook the Stars") has taken his father's unfinished script and brought it to the screen. Also on board are John Travolta as Maureen's second husband, Joey, and veteran character actor Harry Dean Stanton as Eddie's best friend, Shorty.
"She's So Lovely" is a romantic fable by the late John Cassavetes chronicling the outrageous love affair between Eddie and Maureen, a drunk and unstable young couple who are also about to have a baby. Their weird, intense love for each other causes Eddie to go over the edge and into an institution, while Maureen finds another life for her and her baby. In the end, nothing can keep the two apart.
Starring real-life couple Sean Pen and Robin Wright-Penn, director Nick Cassavetes ("Unhook the Stars") has taken his father's unfinished script and brought it to the screen. Also on board are John Travolta as Maureen's second husband, Joey, and veteran character actor Harry Dean Stanton as Eddie's best friend, Shorty.
Maybe my expectations are set too high, but, I would think that a story by John Cassavetes ("Husbands," "A Woman Under The Influence"), directed by son, Nick, who showed such promise in his first film, "Unhook The Stars," and starring a powerhouse cast, would be an interesting exercise at least. What we get is a pretentious, poorly written (I'll probably rot in hell for saying such a thing about American film icon Cassavetes), poorly directed, poorly acted (mostly) piece of drivel that was a waste of 90+ minutes of my time.
One major problem (of several) is the unfinished screenplay by John Cassavetes. It's just that - unfinished. There is no feeling of completion to the story, with the dramatic confrontation taking place between the Eddie, Maureen and Joey that has the look of a bunch of people standing around wondering what the heck they should do to finish this puppy. Nick Cassavetes should have made the effort to complete the script before going to this wasted effort.
Direction, by Nick C., shows none of the talent he seemed to exhibit in his freshman effort. He attempts to use his father's manic camera style, but this looks imitative. He has no control over his actors, so Wright-Penn comes across as a thoroughly unlikable bitch who shouldn't attract any one man, never mind two. This could have been the script, or Wright-Penn, or both. In any case, I'm tagging hers as one of the worst performances of the year.
Hubby Sean fairs little better with a performance based on his constantly changing hair style/color. His "best" scenes make him sound like the crazy combat photographer played by Dennis Hopper in "Apocalypse Now." Hopper was a heck of a lot better. Penn has always proved to be a talented actor. That talent was left on the door step when he agreed to do "She's So Lovely."
Harry Dean Stanton, miscast as Eddie's best friend, Shorty, does a yeoman's job trying to hold things together. He is, still, one of the great character actors to grace film these past decades. (I even liked him in "Red Dawn"!)
John Travolta has, since his career rebirth, shown himself to be the consummate pro, giving his thorough attention to the details of his characters. As Joey, he's a happily married, successful blue collar guy who is suddenly presented with the prospect of his life falling apart. His entry into the film is a breath of fresh air. Too bad there is not enough air to save this dud.
When Shorty tells Eddie, "You gotta get out of here!," I should have taken his advice. Despite Travolta and the venerable Harry Dean, I give "She's So Lovely" a D.
Nick Cassevetes, son of John and Gena Rowlands, made a fine directorial debut last year with a vehicle for his mom, the under appreciated "Unhood the Stars." For his sophomore effort, "She's So Lovely," Nick went to an unfinished screenplay by his dad. Someone should have at least polished the screenplay.
Sean Penn won this year's Cannes Film Festival Best Actor award for his portrayal of Eddie, a charismatic if somewhat crazy punk who's married to Maureen (Robin Wright Penn). They're a couple of down on their luck alcoholic losers who stumble through life until Maureen's beaten and raped by a neighbor (James Gandolfini, in an eerily creepy, ingratiating performance) when Eddie's MIA for a few days, leaving Maureen with no other options to obtain her cigarettes and whiskey. When Eddie returns, he's suspicious of the cause of pregnant Maureen's bruises. She lies to avoid the inevitable showdown, but after a romantic if drunken reunion, she spills. Eddie goes nuts, shooting an institutional worker who's come to keep him from hurting himself (and anyone else in his path).
Fastforward to 10 years later and a docile Eddie is being released (Gena Rowlands plays his caseworker). Come to find out, the love of his life has remarried and has two daughters in addition to his own. Maureen's husband Joey (John Travolta, giving the film's best and most grounded performance) is faced with meeting the man his wife has always said she truly loves (Maureen's never lied to Joey, you see).
I had had high hopes for "She's So Lovely," even though the buzz from Cannes was mixed (despite Penn's award). The film's a mess, recalling the low life drunks of Charles Bukowski (the far superior film, "Barfly," starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway, was based on a Bukowski work) more than the films of the senior Cassevetes. "She's So Lovely" is ostensibly about l'amour fou, with one woman desired by two men. This just doesn't play because Robin Wright Penn's Maureen is a pathetic drunken mess in the earlier segment of the film and a drab, screechy housewife in the latter part. Cassevetes' dialogue sounds like lunacy coming from Penn's Eddie ("The world is run by a computer and seven women.") - yeah, he's supposed to be nuts, but this isn't natural nuts. Penn does manage to shine in his one scene with Gena Rowlands. Travolta brings the most to the film as the husband and provider who's stunned to discover that the release of a mental patient is about to turn his entire world upside down. He's also funny when he sneaks his stepdaughter Jeanie (Kelsey Mulrooney in a very natural performance) a beer. Harry Dean Stanton as Shorty, Eddie's best friend, and Debi Mazar as Shorty's girlfriend Georgie, barely register.
"She's So Lovely" doesn't even give us the benefit of a real conclusion. It just runs out of gas.
THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG
Our last film tonight is a video recommendation for a recently released, newly restored film masterpiece.
In 1964, French director Jacques Demy created a movie musical that was completely unique and remains so til this day - every bit of dialogue in the story is sung. Catherine Deneuve is Genevieve, a young girl who works in her mother's umbrella shop and loves Guy, a local mechanic. When he must go to fight in Algeria, she vows to wait for his return, but when a wealthy diamond merchant becomes smitten with the now pregnant Genevieve, her practical mother urges her to marry him.
"The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" features a marvelous Michel Legrand score ("I Will Wait for You" became a hit stateside) to carry a simple story told with oftentimes quirky dialogue, made more charming by the fact that it's being sung (the strong emotional scenes are counterbalanced by Deneuve singing about the hem of her skirt). In addition to the unique use of music, the film's planned use of color is one of the best examples of it's type and is equally important to the texture of the film.
The film also features the most romantic scene ever shot in a gas station and a heartbreaking finale. As a filmlover, discovering a masterpiece is like finding buried treasure - "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" was such a relevation.
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